Quiet Riot

Rockin' the house but shying from the spotlight, DJ Element is the Valley's no-flash grandmaster


By the light of dusk on an autumn day, with Element whipping through a practice session on his twin Technic turntables, scratching discs and slapping the fader on his mixer with breakneck speed, the vision just outside the window of the spare bedroom in his modest manufactured home looks like a swaying throng of skinny, spiky-haired ravers. When he's really rockin' the decks, and the setting sun casts just the right reddish glow, the image can even take on the appearance of a sea of upheld lighters at a huge outdoor concert, begging for an encore.

In fact, what Element peers out on while running through his daily practices are the acres upon acres of tall cotton fields blanketing the Salt River Indian reservation, where the DJ -- named in part for his role as one of the basic elements in hip-hop and partly for the Pimas' deep connection to the land -- has lived his entire 26 years.

Digging for discs at Stinkweeds in Tempe: "I'll eat Cup o' Noodles for a month so I can have $500 worth of new records."
Brandon Sullivan
Digging for discs at Stinkweeds in Tempe: "I'll eat Cup o' Noodles for a month so I can have $500 worth of new records."
Rockin' by candlelight at Martini Ranch's Shaker Room: "This place hired me because I have a bit of a name. They tell me, 'Just do you.'"
Brandon Sullivan
Rockin' by candlelight at Martini Ranch's Shaker Room: "This place hired me because I have a bit of a name. They tell me, 'Just do you.'"

"Martha Stewart's Pima cotton sheets," Element says, grimacing, as he carefully places his records in their sleeves and gazes out over the rapt audience of puffy-topped stalks. "That's probably where most of this goes. The tractors run through every now and then, and you just see it in big bulks after they pick it, waiting to be hauled away."

It's a peculiarly rural backdrop for Element's brash, urban style of DJing, a crash-up mix of funk, jazz, hip-hop, dancehall, rock and whatever else he has in his crates that hits the listener like an electrified walk down a crowded city street, with a bracing surprise around every corner.

Asked if he ever feels oddly out of place, rockin' the cotton with those big city beats, Element shrugs and says he's never given it much thought. "I mean, I've seen DJs' houses where the windows look out on nothing but city," he says. "But this is all I've ever known."

Besides, he says, a DJ's inspiration comes not from what's outside his window but from what's inside his record racks -- which, in Element's case, is an encyclopedic collection of vintage vinyl. Overflowing from two floor-to-ceiling IKEA shelving units that crowd his practice room is what he calls the core of his collection: everything from King Curtis and Nina Simone to classical collections, odd rarities like The Warriors soundtrack (fashionable again, thanks to a new PS2 game based on the '70s gang flick), and even vintage Cheech and Chong. "I've got a couple of storage units filled with seven more cabinets just like these," he says.

Still, the quiet, earthy simplicity of the Pimas' land suits Element's disposition, as well as what seems to be his restrained ambition. While his friends Z-Trip and DJ Radar have each hit big this year with works already drawing attention to the Phoenix turntablist scene -- Z-Trip with his modern-rock radio climber Shifting Gears (the first DJ album ever awarded a coveted four stars in Rolling Stone), and Radar with his serious-minded Concerto for Turntable, which he took last month to Carnegie Hall -- Element may well be the only player in the crowded Phoenix DJ scene who's not consciously primping himself to be the next major-label discovery.

"I suppose I should get around to having more CDs pressed," he says when asked if he's planning to capitalize on the momentum generated by his peers. "I keep hearing all the stores around town are out of stock."

He doesn't have a manager, and only recently allowed himself to be talked into getting a Web site (djelement.net). His CDs, nonstop party mixes of deep-dug funk, hip-hop and jazz, have become favorites of serious hip-hop heads around the Valley. But even on his own Web site, two-thirds of his catalogue is unavailable. He nearly blew off an interview and photo session for this article so that he could hang out with some DJ pals after a weekend gig in Tucson and mess around with tracks.

"It just sounds strange when I tell people I've got to do a photo shoot or something," he says, sheepishly. "I've never been good at that part of the game."


Element says he never planned on becoming a star DJ. As the youngest of nine kids in a noisy house just a stone's throw away from where he now lives, he simply loved records -- everything from the traditional O'odham "chicken scratch" music his father preferred to the jazz and reggae his mom played to the Metallica, Poison, Prince and Michael Jackson his older brothers and sisters filled the house with.

By his senior year at Westwood High in Mesa, Element was deep into hip-hop and experimenting with scratching and beat juggling, mixing up the latest beats with the odd records scattered around his parents' house and borrowing his mom's Aerostar van to haul his stereo and discs to parties.

At 17, a friend egged him into going onstage at an all-ages DJ battle at the old Boston's in Tempe, and he immediately won over some influential promoters.

"Within a month, they had got me into tons of gigs, one after another," he recalls. "By the time I was 19, I was playing clubs in Scottsdale four or five nights a week. And making pretty good money. I didn't plan for it, but everything just kind of snowballed."

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